BOISE, Idaho – “So,” Mike Daum is asked, “About that nickname…”
He’s sitting inside a cramped locker room at the Taco Bell Arena, as his face reddens and teammates around him snicker and laugh and nudge each other’s elbows. The Dauminator shrugs and beings his explanation. He has dealt with this mockery before.
The small-college forward with the NBA skillset and the jump shot that recalls a certain Larry legend chose his Twitter handle back in middle school. Daum had no idea then that he’d shoot his way into a scholarship at South Dakota State, or ascend to levels of, ahem, dominance even his mother never envisioned. Or that said Twitter handle—@dauminator24—would become not only his nickname but an accurate description of his play.
Back then, Daum—known then, now and, hopefully, forever as The Dauminator—was a farm kid growing up in small-town Kimball, Neb., population roughly 2,500, if you include the cattle. That’s where he developed into the best player casual college basketball fans may or may not have heard of, a two-time Summit League Player of the Year now worthy of his moniker.
On Thursday, The Dauminator will match up with Ohio State forward Keita Bates-Diop, a future NBA lottery pick and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. And that’s when—should Daum’s remarkable ascendance continue in the West Region of the NCAA tournament—the rest of a bracket-obsessed nation will know what those in Jackrabbit Country have known for years now: The Dauminator dauminates.
Daum averaged 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds for the Jackrabbits this season, while scoring 30 points or more in 12 games and adding to his growing career total of more than 2,200 career points scored. In fact, Daum is the most efficient high-usage player in this tournament field, scoring 1.1 points per play while converting 42% of his three-point attempts. According to College Basketball Reference, the best historical comparisons for his production this season are Creighton’s Doug McDermott in 2013 and ’14 and Jimmer Fredette with BYU in 2010.
The Dauminator can thank his mom for that.
Michele Daum was one of the top women’s basketball players ever at Wyoming, where as a 6’2” power forward she averaged a double-double, earning later induction into the university’s athletics Hall of Fame. When her career ended, she ranked first in school history in scoring and rebounding and she played professionally in Europe and Australia.
“Really, she introduced me to basketball,” The Dauminator says.
The Daums lived in Kimball but ran a farm just outside of town, where they grew wheat and corn and other crops. As a young child, Mike worked there in the early mornings with his father, Mitch, a former tight end at Wyoming who played briefly in the NFL with the Houston Oilers before players went on strike in 1987. There’s even an infamous story in family lore about the time that Mike broke an expensive grain cart. He learned a lesson that day, mom says. Take your time. Do the job right. That incident also proved he wasn’t long for the family business, and eventually early-morning workouts replaced his predawn farm chores.
At one such workout, with Michele feeding him, Mike drained more than 30 straight three-pointers. His mom burst out in tears—they were, she clarifies, of the disbelief variety. “You have no idea what you’re capable of,” she told him.
Starting in high school, Daum gave up football and farming and focused exclusively on his life’s love: basketball. He dreamt of playing in the NBA, which even he admits was pretty farfetched back then in his days playing for an AAU team named the Rocky Mountain Fever.
His mom says he had eight or nine scholarship offers to smaller schools when he played for the Fever in the Las Vegas Classic in the summer before his final year of high school. That would have been 2013. He was competing against a center who stood 7’6”, attracting a smattering of Division I scouts, and not only did Daum shoot well, in that particular game he made 12 three-pointers—a dozen triples that, he says, “changed my life.”
Michele was in the stands that day, sending pictures to her husband, along with texts like, “He just made another one!” She was not alone. Two coaches from South Dakota State also happened to be watching while scouting another player and not long after that game ended, they offered The Dauminator a scholarship. They always looked for big men who could shoot from the outside, assistant coach Rob Klinkefus says. And they had never seen a big man shoot like that.
There was another wrinkle. The Daum who arrived on campus did not exactly dauminate. He was tall but chunky and awkward, and he was getting worked inside. Coaches wondered if he’d even see the court and decided to redshirt him for that first season, in 2014–15. “Best thing that ever happened to him,” his mom says.
Daum changed his diet, focusing on hydration and eating better, and dropped his body-fat percentage to 10.4. Then came the week that changed everything. The Jackrabbits were slated to play Colorado State, and they tasked Daum with mimicking one of the best forwards in a Power Five conference. For the first time since his arrival, he truly dauminated. So much so that he says the starting forward started to get mad at him at practice. “It was the first time I thought, Mike’s going to be really, really good,” Klinkefus says.
Still, Daum admits, “At that point in time, I wouldn’t have expected to be where I am today.”
The rise: Sixth Man of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the Summit League in 2015–16; then the league’s Player of the Year last season and again this year. National outlets started to take notice, with ESPN, The Athletic and others dispatching writers to South Dakota to write about the small-college forward who in some ways—like how he shot, ball cocked over head, the step-back, the wrist flick—resembled Larry Bird.
Somewhere along the way his NBA dream became less that and more of a reality. Daum recorded 17 points and seven boards in an NCAA tournament loss to eventual national runner-up Gonzaga last season. He helped the Jackrabbits reach the tournament again this year by averaging 25.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in the Summit tourney, setting up the matchup with the Buckeyes and making the Jackrabbits a trendy pick to bust some brackets here in Boise.
Daum could return to South Dakota State next year, or pursue his NBA aspirations at a bigger school, as a grad transfer. He could leave for the NBA, too, but his mom has been careful to spell out the odds involved there. How many white, admittedly goofy kids from small Midwest towns are currently playing in the league? Not many. She knows that. He knows that. Take your time, she reminds her son. Do the job right.
Still, Michele sees the next step as a logical extension of her son’s basketball life thus far. “Honestly, look at his career, everything he’s gone through, the stereotypes, growing up in a small town,” she says. “The odds have been stacked against him.”
The Jackrabbits, under second-year coach T.J. Otzelberger, have only lost once since Dec. 15. To those in Boise for the basketball rather than any one particular team, Daum made his pitch on Wednesday for an SDSU adoption. Come for the mascot, he says, and stay for the scoring.
“People should look at Mike and see that you can do it wherever you are,” his mom says. “He had a lot of naysayers. A lot of people who didn’t believe in him. He just went out and…”